TRANSCRIPT OF SENATOR RICHARD COLBECK
June 20, 2014
It's been great to be here today and can I firstly acknowledge my parliamentary colleague, your local member? It is great to be in your patch Michael. Michael is also the opener of our parliamentary cricket side and he turns up every year and I say 'you can open' and he just nods, so that's all good too. We travel a lot and particularly in my portfolio I go around a lot of places in the country looking at fishing and forestry and there are not a lot of places where you really feel at home. You've got a great community here and it's been a fantastic day and it's really good to be in a community that is really about forestry and I've certainly appreciated that.
Can I also acknowledge my local government colleagues, thank you for the welcome today it's been fantastic to be here and to have the opportunity to see a number of elements of a local community. There are obviously plenty more reasons for me to come back including some fishing, as I understand it.
The one thing I would like to leave behind after I move on from portfolio, as I inevitably will, is a really strong platform for growth of the forest industry. It manifests itself in different ways in different parts of the country and those of you who know my home state of Tasmania, the issues around resource and resource security down there are quite different to what they are in the local region here and that is obviously important. But in a community like this where the resource is based on plantation there are some challenges as well because there hasn't been any significant expansion in the pine plantation resource for a long period of time and, as I learnt today, there continues to be harvesting but not so much regeneration as there could be in the resource.
You've also got the hardwood industry around the country which went in quite rapidly through the drive of the 2020 vision and managed investment schemes, but then stoped about five or six years ago. About 30 percent of that resource won't go back and some people estimate as much as 50 percent. That causes some real problems for the communities that have come to rely on that resource and economic base and I know that in the green triangle at the moment a lot of that resource is now starting to come to maturity. There is a bit of conversation going on because there was some resistance to land use change in those communities when the plantations were being established, despite the work and the employment that they brought into those communities. Now they are getting to the stage of being harvested and there is quite significant investment going in, not just in people but also infrastructure, equipment and training all the people who are working there. The attitude is quite rapidly starting to change and I've even seen that in some of our colleagues who hadn't been so keen on trees, plantations or forestry but they're seeing how that is now starting to underpin the communities that are surrounded by those assets and it's changing their view.
I suppose what they're doing is coming to understand what many other regional communities have understood for a long time, the forest industry is a great industry for local and regional communities, it's a good employer and can provide a strong foundation for a local economy and it provides opportunities for people within those communities. Just discussing today the low unemployment rates in this region where you have a really good foundation for a forest community, and I've seen the other side of the equation. A community like Scottsdale in my home state which was based on two pine mills where that resource is no longer processed in that community and property values have devalued by more than 50 percent, a $230,000 to $240,000 house you can't give away for $100,000, the bank won't lend you the money to buy it because they're worried about the prices dropping even further. So the importance of maintaining the asset and resource is really important.
Those who were at the dinner at Parliament House in March would have heard the Prime Minister expressing his support for the industry and I couldn't have been more delighted because I haven't heard a Prime Minister express that sort of support for the forest industry since John Howard did in 2004 and in fact during the previous six years my perception would be that the government was actually agnostic at best, but not supportive as a rule of the forest industry. Our job is to turn that around.
We went to the election offering to provide long-term resource security in the native forest sector by making our regional forest agreements a rolling 20 year document so that there was an investment horizon in front of the industry. We also wanted to change the attitude for renewable energy credits so that residues could genuinely be used for energy generation in regional communities, providing additional opportunities. And we've got well along the way with the establishment of the Forest Industry Advisory Council, the Prime Minister announced Rob de Fegeley as the chair and we've just about got that sorted out now so we can get working on it and the ambition that I have for that organisation is that it develops a plan for the forestry industry. We're doing a White Paper for agriculture. Forestry is not part of that White Paper, but I would like the forest industry advisory council to work alongside the work of the agricultural White Paper because they are in it, to develop a long-term plan for the forestry and that be the platform that's left behind.
It's not since early 90s that there was a really strong plan developed for the forest industry in this country. The regional forest agreements and the 2020 vision came from that process and I think it's about time that it's updated. I've had a couple of really good meetings with Rob de Fegeley and we've started talking about what we want to achieve from that process and we've started mapping that already. I've had feedback from people who are associated with my department and they say there is a group of people in there who are just busting to get to work to build a plan and then to start putting it into place for a long-term future for the forest industry. They think there is huge opportunity.
Those of you who were at the dinner in Canberra would have heard me talking about the developments in research and development globally and the possibilities for the future products coming from the forest industry. You've seen the fights between Qantas and Virgin over their business here in the country, but when those two businesses jointly come to me and say we're looking for a cellulose based supply of product for aviation fuel, you know that they're serious about it. There are groups of people looking around the country now for a cellulose research base for the production of aviation fuel.
There is work being done in Canada by the R&D organisation over there on nanocrystalline cellulose, which is quite frankly an extraordinary product. GM is thinking about potentially 30 per cent of a motor vehicle being made out of cellulose based products coming from trees in the future. That's a huge change in mindset.
There's work being done here in New South Wales around ethanol, biodiesels and other cellulose based high value chemicals. I've had conversations with businesses from Europe looking for those things and looking for opportunities to access resource for those things as well, and not in huge quantities, they're talking about quantities of about 150,000 tonnes within 100 to 150 kilometre radius to be able to viably produce those high value cellulose based chemicals. So there is huge opportunity.
The thing that underpins all that obviously is the resource and the planning to ensure that the resource is available is going to be very important. There is also a lot of work that we have to do in relation to some community attitudes for some of our friends in the cities. But I think that we can and are now starting to win that argument. And not only that, but I think some of the people in those metropolitan centres are a bit sick of being told by the Greens that you just can't do those sort of things. Some of the environmental groups, or I probably shouldn't call them environmental groups because my opinion is hardening a little bit in that, I'd call them anti-industry groups, are starting to wear a little bit thin on the broader community because they're starting to wake up that all they do is say 'you can't do this, you can't do this, you can't do this'.
They certainly are at home in my patch and at the last two elections they've suffered eight percent swings against them and I think that is significant. In the Canberra election in the ACT they lost three of their four seats, so I think people are starting to understand and they genuinely do when the economy gets tighter that you need industry to have a local economy and certainly in my state, the state that actually bred the Greens to start with, they've said we want to have an economy we don't just want to be a national park and the Prime Minister put that very well when he talked about our industry in Tasmania. But we have to apply those principles nationally, so the work we're doing around the Regional Forest Agreements, the work we're doing around the Renewable Energy Target is to send some really strong signals to the industry that this industry does have a future.
When you look at what is happening in the construction industry globally where timber s being regarded as the building material of the 21st century and you've got buildings like Forte in Melbourne which is the highest commercial residential building in the world and its made all of wood, it was erected in about 16 weeks without an extension cord on site, with cordless drills. It was a significant achievement and they've now finished a second building at Docklands with the library and community centre. There is an opportunity to develop the product that those buildings were built out of, cross laminated timber, here in Australia as well. A company thinks there is an opportunity for three CLT plants up the east coast of Australia and here you are sitting in the middle of a pine resource which is a prime target for that particular product. What we need to do is create the investment environment where people are comfortable with making an investment in those sorts of products. A company think that up to 30 percent of their commercial residential construction could be made out of CLT. So there are extraordinary opportunities in the forest industry in the future. And might I say there is not a CLT plant in the United States, it's all being imported from Europe for products being utilised in the United States at the moment.
So we really are in a situation where we have an opportunity. FP Innovations, which is the R&D corporation that's been developed in Canada where government state and federal and industry have all come together and pooled their money and built a new and innovative R&D corporation over there, are more than happy to share their research. One of the things I've been talking to Ross Hampton from the Australian Forest Products Association about is that we need to develop that sort of R&D capacity here in Australia. He's already done a lot of great work talking to the states and a number of the states have already decided they're prepared to come in on the process. The thing he hadn't been able to do yet is convince industry to come on and obviously he's got a little bit of work to do with us, but we're continuing to work on that process. That is another thing I would like the forest industry advisory council to do, so we can work through how we might design that process.
Forest Wood Products Australia are a key element in that and they're already doing some great work and the marketing campaign that they've put together, 'wood naturally better', is one that I think really resonates in the broader community, not just in a timber community such as this one, but in the broader community where the message about the values that timber and timber products can bring is consistently put in a manner that connects with those metropolitan communities. There are a whole number of things that are starting to stack up right now that I think gives us an opportunity to really start to build a great platform for the forest industry into the future.
So that's the target that I've set myself while I'm in this portfolio, to continue to strongly advocate for the industry and sometimes that's been quite a lonely task, but it's a fulfilling one I can promise you that. Then of course design the plan and start laying the foundations of implementing it, they are the real opportunities that I see and for a community such as this one that has the forest industry and timber at its heart, I think that there's enormous opportunity for growth. You've got someone like your local member Michael who is a huge advocate and champion for this region. I think we can work together to achieve a significant amount for the industry, but we all need to be working together so there is some work that we need to do and there are some commitments that we all need to make. I'm really looking forward to that challenge and hopefully we can get our advisory council announced very soon and get on with the task of building the plan and then starting to deliver it.
Can I thank you so much for the invitation to come here tonight; I had a fantastic day today. To my trainer in the forest today, I've been around sawmills and I've been out into the bush before but I haven't had the opportunity to sit in the cab and talk through the thought process of when you're harvesting and see how it works. For a young bloke like you to be doing what you're doing is a real credit to you and I really appreciate the time. Then jumping into the loader to load up and see you put a load together, I really appreciate it. So everyone who's been involved in putting together the program today, the mills, the workshops, it's been absolutely fantastic and as I said at the outset not too many places where you will feel really welcome and at home but it's great to be able to say I've felt really at home in a great timber community today so thanks very much for the welcome and thanks very much for the opportunity to be here tonight.